Real Madrid face a must-win Champions League trip to the hostile environment of Galatasaray on Tuesday night, with Zinedine Zidane’s men knowing they would be in serious danger of an early and embarrassing elimination if they suffer another bad result.
Los Blancos are also tasked with bouncing back from a poor performance in Saturday night’s shock La Liga loss to lowly Mallorca, so there’s no doubt about it: the heat is well and truly on.
Hazard back to save the day?
Real boss Zinedine Zidane was without no less than eight players for Saturday’s trip to Mallorca, and although Luka Modric and Gareth Bale are still sidelined he will be relieved to welcome back a clutch of key men including Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal.
The most important returnee, however, could well be Eden Hazard. The former Chelsea star skipped weekend duty with Zidane’s blessing after his wife gave birth to their fourth child on Friday night, and his ability to penetrate the penalty box was badly missed as Real stuttered through the game in Mallorca, creating hardly any clear chances as they stumbled to a highly disappointing defeat.
Hazard has struggled to shine during the opening weeks of his Bernabeu stint, scoring just once in six games, but this is exactly the kind of game he was signed for and the Belgian star will carry a heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders. This could be – and should be – his chance to write his first serious lines in the Madrid history book. Hazard has been recruited for this kind of occasion, and he is under pressure to deliver.
Hazard’s starting place is beyond doubt, but the identity of his companions in the front six is less than certain.
The first decision facing Zidane is the formation of his team. Will it be a 4-4-2 with Hazard, James Rodriguez, Isco or the struggling Luka Jovic supporting Karim Benzema, or the French coach’s more accustomed 4-3-3 shape with Hazard on the left wing and either James, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes or even Brahim Diaz on the right?
Casemiro and the returning Kroos are set to start in the centre of the pitch but perhaps Zidane’s biggest call is whether to field young Uruguayan Fede Valverde, who has never failed to impress and surely deserves the chance to strengthen a midfield battleground which has often – most recently in Mallorca on Saturday – looked undermanned.
Even without Bale, Modric, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, there are still plenty of options at Zidane’s disposal. Finding the right recipe could be a key to the outcome.
Zidane’s last chance?
Whichever combination of players Zidane chooses to field, and whichever strategical set-up he decides to employ, there is a growing sense within the Spanish media that this could be the French coach’s last chance to put things right.
Defeat would leave Real bottom of Group A and at least three points – perhaps as many as five – away from the top two at the midway stage of the group phase, and the prospect of being dumped into an unappetising diet of Thursday night Europa League football for the second half of the season would be unpalatable for president Florentino Perez.
Monday’s pre-match press conference was dominated by questions over the coach’s future, and those doubts would inevitably intensify with a negative result in Istanbul. With the shadow of Jose Mourinho lurking ever present in the background, it seems clear that Zidane cannot afford many more slip-ups. Will this be his last stand?
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